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Lessons of the Past: Reflecting on First Looks after Reflecting on Yvonne Rainer

Wed 23 May 2018

Lessons of the Past: Reflecting on First Looks after Reflecting on Yvonne Rainer

The Festival ended on Sunday and I've been thinking about the oldest and newest pieces of choreography I saw in the programme. It was rare and wonderful to see a performance of Yvonne Rainer's iconic Trio A (1966), alongside her Talking Solos (1963) and Chair-Pillow (1969). Trio A sees three dancers perform naked, American flags tied around their necks, bib-like. It was originally performed to protest the arrests of people accused of desecrating the flag, in the context of the ongoing Vietnam War.

What can you learn from watching a piece of choreography that’s over 50 years old? A piece of choreography that, at the time of its making, was groundbreaking in how it asked bodies to move, and in how it engaged with politics?

What’s surprising about watching the piece, presented at and in partnership with IMMA as part of this year’s programme, is how codified it looks, how specific. Rainer subverted form in classical dance in the 1960s when she introduced pedestrian movements like walking and running, used untrained performers, and embraced speaking while moving. But what was a subversion of form in the 1960s now looks surprisingly formalised in 2018. This is when you look at the piece next to a growing school of choreography that doesn’t set movement – it sets mood, atmosphere, poses provocations to the dancers. The dancers or performers often generate much of the movement themselves, in response to tasks, not unlike devised theatre. The work tries to get to the real person, through their history, rather than putting pre-made movement ‘on’ the performer. And yet, though the performers of Trio A at IMMA are utterly engrossed in executing Rainer's movement exactly as she intended it, we still see the person clearly. The choreography is so spare, the movements so distinct and functional, the emotional direction so non-existent, that the individual personalities of the dancers are clear, are visible. There is, again, the shock of the new in this piece of work that’s over 50 years old.

Interestingly, choreographer Pat Catterson, who directed the reconstruction of the piece for the IMMA performance, explained after the show that Rainer was open to variations sneaking in when Trio A was reconstructed by other dancers in the early days. It was about following the spirit rather than the letter of the law. But, as years passed and the work became more iconic, the weight of history bearing down on it, the choreographer became more concerned with preserving it as originally intended. “She was even giving me corrections this time around,” said Patterson of the IMMA run. She herself danced the piece for Rainer in the '60s.

This 50-year old piece of choreography stayed with me while I watched the newest work in the programme, the three work-in-progress shows that make up First Looks in DanceHouse. Two statements by Rainer, made in a recent interview with Una Mulally for the Irish Times, circled around in my head while watching these pieces:

In a way, dance reinvents the wheel. Each new generation that comes up is revelling in their own physicality and has to explore it all over again. I guess there are only so many things the body can do. There have to be new ways of putting things together, of course, with optics, music…

and

My frame of reference, or one of them, in the 1960s was ballet, how the man always lifted the woman, those conventions and clichés. This was of course before the second wave of feminism. But it was clear that two women could lift a man. And so I proceeded to find these alternate ways of getting people into the air, regardless of gender. 

Jessie Keenan’s Fragments, the first of the three pieces, doesn’t pretend to do something wildly new with the body, but it does ‘put things together’ in a satisfying way. The concept behind the piece, the fragmented and fallible nature of memory, is not groundbreaking either - but new doesn’t always mean better. The three performers (Marion Cronin, Lucia Kickham and Sarah Ryan) are clear-eyed, elegant, sensitive, inhabiting Keenan’s choreography with delicate nuance. Tom Lane’s sticky, staticky soundtrack, based on a phone recording of the dancers telling stories, dissolves coherence into isolated words and background bleeps. The audience is seated in a rectangle, facing inwards. The three dancers walk the perimeter of this rectangle, at moments coalescing in the centre in a held group pose. I see echoes of the movement vocabulary of other Irish choreographers (Liz Roche’s Fast Portraits for one), but as Rainer says, there are only so many things the body can do. Taken as a whole, Fragments is its own thing, beautiful to watch.

Ruairi O’Donovan’s Archipelagic Thinking came second, which I won’t write about at any length here as it doesn’t fit neatly into the Rainer framework I’ve set up. But I will say that it involved a heavy degree of audience participation and I got to contribute to the soundtrack by messing about with some sea detritus. Short and sweet, I look forward to seeing more of the work unfold in the future.

The third work was Iseli-Chiodi’s Merlin. This was tough to watch. Not because the four dancers (two male, two female) weren’t talented and strong performers. They were. Not because there weren’t surprising and memorable images. There were plenty of those. But because, more than 50 years after Rainer upended the idea that men could only upend women in dance, and never the other way around, I was watching a piece of choreography that hinged primarily on male bodies capturing and subduing female bodies.

Near the start of the piece, a topless female dancer (Clara Protar), the front of her naked torso from waist to jawline smeared in a thick coat of flaking white paint, bursts out from behind a screen to run at full pelt around the studio, arms flailing. The other three performers (Jazmin Chiodi, Lorenzo Dallai and Alexandre Iseli) catch and bind her with their arms. She escapes again and is captured again. Later, she escapes and is captured by Iseli alone, who grabs her from behind and lifts her whole body, one hand on her chest, the other wrapped around her throat. She is frozen, expressionless, held facing out towards the audience, vulnerable and trapped.

There is later a duet between Protar (whose character in the blurb is named as the ‘headstrong child-woman’) and her captor. The duet follows the lines of that classic male-female interaction in contemporary choreography where the woman runs away from the man repeatedly, only to be grabbed, pulled back, lifted in the air, dragged limp across the floor. If this sounds unsettling to read in print, it’s no less unsettling to watch in performance. And yet, there are countless examples of it in contemporary choreography, and it is not presented as a display of aggression, or a denial of autonomy, but as romance. The power dynamics it suggests are pretty scathingly and clearly expounded in this piece by Eleanor Sikorski.

The second half of Merlin sees the two male dancers methodically and coldly manipulating and posing the bodies of the women, sometimes binding them in uncomfortable looking postures. The women are passive. The manipulation goes on and on and, when I think of the debate raging outside the walls of the dance studio at that very moment, I find it absolutely incredible that I’m watching this piece of choreography. That it is newly minted.

I look to the blurb for clues – maybe Merlin is a conscious commentary on female bodily autonomy. The blurb talks about fairy-tales and the ‘irruption of instinct and myth through the surface of our social composure’. Is the instinct that irrupts the male drive to grab, to own, to subdue female bodies? The show almost seems to follow three stages of female subjugation – the 'headstrong child-woman' initially subdued by her family, then her husband, then society. I’d like to think this is the intention. But I feel that, if it is, the work needs more texture and variation to achieve an impact. There is no subversion of the status quo if you simply present the status quo – Brecht’s theory doesn’t apply to an abstract form like dance. Speaking to another audience member after the show, they looked perplexed/vaguely irritated when I mentioned gender dynamics.

Work is not made in a vacuum – every show that's made reflects or challenges or is shaped by the political conditions of the moment. At this particular moment, work that deals in the manipulation of bodies has a special responsibility to be wary of reinforcing abusive dynamics. It looks like the breakthroughs of 50 years ago could stand a re-run. 

 

Words: Rachel Donnelly. Rachel is the arts editor for Totally Dublin and the editor of DRAFF.

ImageMerlin by Iseli-Chiodi Dance Company. Photographer: Alex Iseli